Comprehensive and academic yet accessible, this is one of the best histories of science fiction I've read. Taking science fiction from its earliest, and sometimes controversial, roots, via the twin themes of rational and magical philosophy or belief systems to today's complex set of conventions which define modern science fiction.
The importance of this work is difficult to overstate, as a sometimes neglected genre of literature powerful academic works of history and criticism are at a premium and this, combined with the equally excellent encyclopaedia of science fiction by Peter Nicholls and John Clute, form a powerful meta-text to this, my favourite, genre of fiction and help negate some of the sneering commentary sometimes expressed by those whose only experience of science fiction is via Dr Who.
As is usual with these sorts of works, Professor Roberts has aligned his history with a thesis that science fiction is tied to rationality and partially mirrors the depth of "rationality" within society rather than "fantasy" works which have a more magical bent. This is an excellent device to use to string together this history and allows works from classical Greece and reformation-era Europe to be discussed without jarring intellectual leaps by the reader.
To the same end, Roberts breaks sci-fi into tightly defined classifications, in particular a chapter devoted to the works of Verne and Wells, which progresses the narrative rapidly and makes the work much more accessible to the reader, giving sensible start and stop points for casual interaction and easy reference.
All in all this is an excellent work and I have only one criticism to make, in such a work there will inevitably be omissions but the lack of any mention of Cordwainer Smith (one pseudonym of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger ) who was, well to my mind, one of the most important and influential sci-fi authors of the 20th century whose stories demonstrate such a highly developed moral centre and whose prose is as good as any other author of the last 200 years, to be baffling in the extreme.
on 14 February 2013
This is the most significant attempt at a one-volume narrative history of SF since Aldiss and Wingrove's "Trillion Year Spree" way back when. Aldiss and Wingrove are probably more epigrammatic and accessible to the general reader, because Prof. Roberts has produced an academic work, but in doing so he's produced a work of greater intellectual rigour and one which, for an academic text, is remarkably lucid, eminently readable and jargon-free. He also manages to be scrupulously fair even to writers he doesn't much care for (though you might end up in the rare position of feeling sorry for Harlan Ellison) or whose viewpoints he doesn't share, like Heinlein. Or, in brief, he sets himself a tough challenge, and meets it brilliantly.
Roberts' key contribution to SF history is probably his definition of the genre as that branch of fantastic literature that springs from a rational/technological rather than a mystical/magical perspective - but in which the latter continues to surface. Indeed, for Roberts, the gravitational pull of the mystical/magical viewpoint is essential to actually understanding SF, as it offers an explanation as to why this ostensibly logical, hard-headed genre is so partial to themes of transcendence, and why so many of its readers still love the "sense of wonder". His definition of SF is one of those brilliant ideas that seems so lucid and obvious you wonder why on earth no-one managed to come up with it before.
With that established, like some previous writers, Roberts sees SF as starting with Lucian of Samosata. Unlike some previous writers, he's able to make a sound case for this position. The first half of the book (about 170 pages in total) then traces the tale of what used to be called "proto-SF" up till the arrival of the first American pulp SF mags in the 1920s. You might think that's a long time before we get to the stuff most general readers are actually interested in, but it's a remarkably (and surprisingly) interesting account that goes a long way to clarifying his definition and, in doing so, increasing our overall understanding of SF. His discussions on Mary Shelley and Poe are astute: he makes a case for, rather than just stating, the significance of Wells; and his rehabilitation of Jules Verne is a real eye-opener. Plus he makes a whole raft of long-forgotten (and frequently daft-sounding) works that no-one will ever actually read again seem curiously interesting.
By the time we reach "Amazing Stories", and all that follows, Roberts has clearly established that the conceptual framework for reading and writing SF doesn't just appear from nowhere, or mysteriously emerge from the pulps, but is a continuation of a long-standing cultural strand. The bare-bones narrative of the genre's history since then is familiar (Golden Age, New Wave, Cyberpunk, etc.) but Roberts' analysis of them is fresh and stimulating (see, for example, his overview of Asimov, which acknowledges the Good Doctor's many weaknesses but makes a brilliant case for his greatest but often forgotten virtue - the ethical questions explored in his robot stories). Most of the key works and writers are covered. However, if there's one key fault with the book, it's a bias towards SF novels rather than shorter fiction, which means that some significant authors are overlooked, or not even mentioned.
Roberts' book is also notable for its serious consideration of SF's broader cultural presence (in music, for example) and his frank admission that, for the vast majority of the global population, SF on TV and cinema screens is far more significant than the written word - mainly because the visual impact of modern moviemaking technology is a far more reliable guarantor of the sense of wonder than the written word. Roberts agrees with many other commentators that SF cinema and TV is largely bereft of intellectual substance - but he's more sanguine about it than many of those commentators, because he can acknowledge its emotional appeal and still root that in the overall nature of the genre. In other words, "serious" written SF isn't under threat from cinematic spectacle - but who reads ERB or "Doc" Smith these days? And why would you need, or want, to?
Roberts' final achievement? To have produced an academically robust text that's eminently readable outside the Ivory Towers, and one that consistently takes a left-of-centre perspective without coming anywhere near the grim, hermetically-sealed, and questionably relevant worlds of critical theory.
Or, to put it another way, how can you not love a book which, in its chronological overview of key developments in SF, offers us the following for 1965:
Philip K. Dick - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
Frank Herbert - Dune
Sun Ra - The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One
Proof that the playful, cheeky wit of works like "Yellow Blue Tibia" can't be suppressed even in a very respectable academic text.